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Grill Envy

Monster cookers lead the way as man explores the new frontier of the outdoor room
Jack Bettridge
From the Print Edition:
Arnold Schwarzenegger, July/Aug 03

I am watching a very un-barbecue scene unfold. Gathered here on a patio overlooking Arch Creek on the Miami campus of Johnson & Wales culinary college, a couple dozen student cooks are wrapped in chef's coats, listening intently to Michael Moskwa, the dean of culinary education, give a seminar on outdoor grilling. On the menu are leg of lamb, filet mignon, pizza and lobster. Johnson & Wales? Lobster? Chef's coats? When did outdoor cooking become so upscale?

What happened to burgers and dogs charred to a deathly pallor over charcoal briquettes? And what of those behemoth, gleaming Vieluxe grills that the seminar is designed to show off?

This is not kettle grills and A1 steak sauce. This is the refined face of outdoor cooking as it enters the twenty-first century. In a world where expenditures on home improvement have increased 130 percent in the past 10 years, pop culture mavens see the outdoor kitchen as the new frontier. Homeowners bent on expanding their entertainment space are creating exterior rooms that bring amenities such as refrigeration and sound systems to the patio or deck. High-end grills, whether built-in or free-standing, are proving to be the centerpiece of the movement. For all of these reasons, outdoor cooking has become a worthy subject for an institution of higher culinary learning.

Here, as we stoke our Vieluxe 44s on a seashell-concrete com-posite floor, under a ceiling of date-tree leaves, we wouldn't be more lords of the manor were these kitchens inside a castle.

The fastest-growing segment of the grill market (25 percent over the last five years) is the luxury end, which starts at a thousand and easily climbs up to eight. Naturally, no real spending limits exist, especially when you start to trick out patios with designer bases for built-in grills.

Moskwa points out that the resources of commercial grade manufacturers of kitchen appliances are being used to create sublime cooking equipment for the outdoors. "These guys have done their research," he says. "It's always interesting to see how different companies tackle problems." Grill manufacturers such as Dynamic Cooking Systems (DCS), Viking and Wolf have long been known for their indoors expertise. Wolf, the cooking arm of the company that makes Sub-Zero refrigerators, was known for its innovations in commercial kitchens before it entered the consumer market in 1988. Vieluxe is the ultraluxury division of Weber-Stephens, which makes the highly regarded Weber grill. While Moskwa contends that the old grill joke about men responding to primal urges to cook with fire still applies, he says people are now more willing to invest in sophisticated equipment.

Dave Becker, vice president of product management at Viking, says that some of his customers are those who make trips to Europe or buy luxury cars -- that is, when they're not exploring great outdoor kitchens. Others are less affluent, but still want great equipment. Viking caters to both, even maintaining a barbecuing team for research purposes.

Viking is a company that is most pointedly moving toward the ideal of the outdoor kitchen; some of its products for the patio include warming drawers, woks, refrigerators and beverage centers. Becker says to expect product development to follow those lines. KitchenAid, another venerable indoor appliance company, is, in its own words, "removing the walls between indoor and outdoor entertaining," with products like bar carts, sinks, refrigerators and even automatic ice makers. With all this in the glitter of stainless steel, nary a reason remains to go back inside.

Shaun Chinsky, Vieluxe's product manager, says that the cheap grill market benefited for many years from low market expectations. "You don't know what you don't know." His company, as well as its many competitors in the high-end grill market, intends to change that.

From my own point of view as author of Barbecue America, a book that chronicles a few delicious seasons spent stalking the country's competitive smoke-cooking circuit, luxury grilling is still an odd phenomenon. The barbecue tour world proffers very serious cooking, but is a homespun scene.

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